The Clinical Picture

A judgment call

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A 22-year-old African American man with sickle cell disease comes to the in his joints and chest—a presentation similar to those of his previous sickle cell crises. He is given intravenous fluids for dehydration and morphine sulfate for pain via a peripheral line, and he is admitted to the hospital.

Shortly afterward, the peripheral line becomes infiltrated. After failed attempts at peripheral cannulation, central venous cannulation via an internal jugular site is considered.

Figure 1.
The patient alerts us that he has had multiple “neck lines” in the past and that these had been difficult to place. With this in mind, we attempt to place a triple-lumen catheter under ultrasonographic guidance and with the use of sterile precautions and the Seldinger technique. On the first attempt, the guidewire cannot be advanced beyond 4 cm, and the attempt is terminated. On the second attempt, the guidewire advances freely, but as the catheter is advanced, slight resistance is felt at 4 cm and again at 10 cm. This resistance is overcome with slight pressure, and subsequent advancement meets with no further resistance. After confirming nonpulsatile blood return in all three lumens, we suture the catheter at 14 cm from the insertion site. A chest radiograph (Figure 1) is requested to confirm placement.


Figure 2.
At first look, the catheter appears to broadly follow an expected trajectory. However, a closer look shows that the catheter is not properly positioned: although it is difficult to see, the tip appears to project beyond the main carina (see arrow), an important landmark to identify catheter tip placement. It appears to go beyond the expected site of the junction of the superior vena cava and the right atrium. Also, at the level of the right main-stem bronchus, the catheter appears to curve with an infero-lateral convexity. To confirm the placement, a lateral view is obtained (Figure 2). As evident in this view, the internal jugular catheter does not terminate at the desirable level, but rather turns posteriorly to extend into the azygos vein (see arrow). The lateral view was required in this patient to ascertain the exact location of the catheter tip.


Central venous catheters are commonly used to give various infusions (eg, parenteral nutrition), to draw blood, and to monitor the central venous pressure.1 The internal jugular vein is one of the preferred veins for central venous access.1,2 Normally, the anatomy of the jugular venous system and the design of the catheter facilitate proper insertion. Occasionally, however, despite proper technique, the tip of the catheter may not terminate at the desired level, resulting in aberrant placement in the internal thoracic vein, superior vena cava, azygos vein, accessory hemiazygos vein, or axillary vein.1–8

The use of chest radiographs to establish the correct placement of internal jugular and subclavian lines has been advocated and is routinely practiced.6,7 Obtaining a chest x-ray to confirm line placement is particularly important in patients with prior multiple and difficult catheterizations. The lateral view is seldom obtained when confirming central neck line placement, but when the anteroposterior view is not reassuring, it may be prudent to obtain this alternate view.

In a large retrospective analysis,9 cannulation of the azygos arch occurred in about 1.2% of insertions, and the rate was about seven times higher when the left jugular vein was used than when the right one was used. A smaller study gave the frequency of azygos arch cannulation as 0.7%.10

All procedure-related complications of central line insertion in the neck can also occur with aberrant azygos vein cannulation. These include infection, bacteremia, pneumothorax, hemothorax, arterial puncture, and various other mechanical complications. It should be noted that aberrant cannulation of the azygos arch is particularly hazardous, and that complication rates are typically higher. These complications are mainly due to the smaller vascular lumen and to the direction of blood flow in the azygos venous system.

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